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Is the Scientific Method the only source of reliable knowledge?

Post of the Month: July 2009


Subject:    | A Typology of Scientism
Date:       | 30 July 2009
Message-ID: | h4tb6p$e79$

This POTM is difficult to follow without presenting Garamond Lethe's opening post: from the thread to provide context. That post, most of which was a quote from a review by Anne L.C. Runehov, read as follows:

Scientism had come up recently in another thread (you can probably guess which one). I didn't think scienticists [mind the spelling] existed outside of thought experiments. You really do meet all kinds here.

[1] Epistemic scienticists ... maintain that only scientific methods are trustworthy paths toward knowledge.

[2] Rational scienticists ... argue that, since science cannot say anything about an Ultimate Reality or soul, Ultimate Reality or soul do not exist.

[3] Ontological scienticists, assert that only those phenomena, processes and events exist which the natural sciences, by way of their methods, are able to depict.

[4] Axiological scienticists mean that all human education should be based on science because all other educational methods are insufficient and unsatisfactory.

[5] Value-theoretical scientism means that the natural sciences can exhaustively explain all ethical issues and should replace classical ethics.

[6] Existential scientism is related to value-theoretical scientism but concerns all religions and worldviews. Hence, the natural sciences should replace religion.

Anne L.C. Runehov, `Review of Chaos, Complexity, and God: Divine Action and Scientism,' Ars Disputandi [] Vol. 6, 18 January 2006.

Since this opening post was clearly intended as a critism of "snex" a regular contributor to Talk.Origins discussions, snex replied stating that:

"[Garamond Lethe] thinks there are other reliable systems of knowledge out there, but he can't tell us what they are or how they are supposed to work"

There followed a very long exchange covering many points until the POTM was created as follows:

snex wrote:
>>> i don't want citations.
>>> i don't want your opinions.
>>> i don't want names of people who agree with you.
>>> i want the actual method.

Garamond Lethe responded:
>> No, I don't think that's true.
>> If that's what you wanted, you'd simply go look it up
>> (or take a class).

snex replied:
> it's more correct to say that i want *you* to back up your assertions.
> but i know you won't.

Garamond Lethe answered with:
Without citation, just like you do. ok.
Not that it will do any good, but here goes....

One of the more famous quotation from Hamlet is "O, that this too too x flesh would melt". There are two variants for "x", "solid" and "sullied". (I'd normally give a citation, but I know how uncomfortable that makes you feel.) So we have a question which is a microcosm of the question you're asking: how do we determine which variant is better?

The first step in the method is bibliographic: what are pedigrees of the variants? In Beckett's case, there's rarely a question as in many cases we have his handwritten texts (although for authors like Kushner this doesn't help, as their work is constantly revised and the editor needs to make a decision as to which version will be used). If I'm remembering correctly, we have almost no material from Shakespeare's own hand, so we're left with two primary sources: the several quarto editions and the first folio.

Assuming the variants have equal pedigree, then second step in the method is determining what the words meant at the time they were written (which can be influenced by the audience for whom they were written). The Oxford English Dictionary is the primary source, as it records and dates changes in usage. (Shakespeare scholars were particularly eager to see the OED come out on CD-ROM --- I can recall my prof taking his new version for a spin and writing up a review in the Milton Quarterly.)

Armed with this information, the next step in the method is structural analysis. If the work is written in meter, does the variant scan? Has the author or character used this word or one like it before, and in what context? Perhaps most important, does the word fit in the sentence, the paragraph, the scene?

In this case, "sullied" and "solid" scan equally well, and both convey the sense of despair that the surrounding text communicates. Neither is particularly favored by the author or character elsewhere.

However, there is a significant difference how the words relate to the other words in the sentence. "Solid" has definite associations with "melt" that "sullied" does not. Solid has definite negative associations with the ghost (although this a much weaker point). "Sullied", in contrast, does have some interesting sexual connotations but they simply don't fit in with the rest of the vocabulary used by and used to describe Hamlet.

Thus, when you lay out the arguments like this, the preponderance of evidence come down on the side of "solid", and that is what is used.

There is an entire corpus of work on just this one word (anyone other than snex is welcome to see, for example, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Autumn, 1960), p. 490. Scholars, critics and audiences use similar approaches for judging quality (and, yes, profundity) of lines, speeches, scenes, and plays (although several more aspects come into play as you scale up).

There are several very good introductions to this kind of analysis that you have no interest in reading. Among them Sir Walter Wilson Greg takes pride of place.

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